Schedules and Boundaries

Just a brief post today to follow up on my post about schedules from a few weeks ago.

After a few weeks of trying to keep ourselves organized as agreed, I have learned that no schedule works without boundaries. And boundaries don’t set themselves; we have to do that.

When we crafted our schedule, we were careful to include in it not only the things that needed doing, but also the things that each of us wanted to do. Now, a little over four weeks into it, it turns out that the parts of the schedule we don’t meticulously stick to are exactly the personal preferences we made sure to fit in.

We all, but specifically my husband and I, have shown a tendency to set aside our personal wants for the general needs. While on some level that makes sense – what must happen must happen, after all – there is one very important level on which it makes absolutely no sense at all: taking time for the wants keeps us charged up for the needs. It’s pure self care, and self care is important.

What we need to remember is that the schedule was set up to accommodate both business and pleasure, for lack of better terminology. If there are times when something has to give, what gives needn’t always be the pleasure. Sometimes the business can be put on hold.

So in order for us to get the most out of this schedule of ours, each of us needs to set boundaries and protect them, because it is all too easy to step over our own interests and preferences. We should remember that everything we’ve created space and time for is there because we felt it is important, and act accordingly regardless of the nature of the task.

Did I HAVE To Say That?

I’d like to talk about something I’ve been struggling with lately: social awkwardness. It’s an issue that doesn’t just affect me, who displays it, but also the people who have to deal with me.

My social awkwardness is conversational and stems, I’m pretty sure, from my (suspected) ADHD. I have no filter for things going in, but I also have no filter for things coming out. What makes it worse is that I’m actually pretty sensitive to situations, emotions and context, and my verbal expression sometimes feels almost involuntary.

Painful example: this morning I was at a shop that I regularly visit, and there’s a lady that works there that has tics. We are quite familiar with tics in various forms – we know someone with Intermittent Tic Disorder (also known as Transient Tic Disorder), we know someone with Tourette’s – and for some reason I mentioned it to her. God knows why, to be honest, because it clearly embarrassed her, and I felt awful right away about that.

I suppose on some level I wanted to mention it because I hate how little understanding there is of and for these disorders, and so I think that actually talking about it would help a great deal. But that’s my feeling about it, and I shouldn’t foist that on others.

On a related note: I should probably considering shopping somewhere else from now on.

These kinds of things – the awkward interactions – have been happening more regularly of late, as the (suspected) ADHD has become less controllable for me and I hate it. I’m really hoping that an ADHD diagnosis and treatment will help bring this (and various other things) under control.

All this is to say, I suppose, that a) maybe I should just not speak when in public, b) I am going to feel horrible about this for the rest of the day and possibly longer, and c) the sooner I get my diagnosis and hopefully medication and psycho-education the better.

Losing Mom

Imagine this:

You wake up in the morning and initially don’t recognize where you are though your surroundings feel familiar. For instance: you can walk straight to the bathroom, and you can find your way to the kitchen, but you’re not sure you know how. It’s probably muscle memory, but that’s not a concept your mind will offer up to you.

You see the person next to you and he, too, is familiar but his precise relationship to you is just off the tip of your brain right now. You do have a relationship with him, and a close one; you feel that you do.

This person lives with you and helps you do the normal, daily things – getting dressed, eating breakfast – though why you would need help with them is anyone’s guess; you don’t realize that if he doesn’t help you, these things don’t get done.

Throughout the day, things are more and less familiar to you at any given time, and sometimes you are convinced you are somewhere you’re not and you can’t bring your surroundings in line with what your mind tells you they should be. Or someone drops by and you know their name but you don’t know how you know it; you just do. But you don’t want to ask who they are exactly, or who they are to you because you don’t want to let on you don’t know. It upsets you, because you feel like you’re being gaslighted. Or you are being asked or told to do something and it infuriates you because you are not a child and you don’t want to be told what to do. It’s disrespectful and you’re a damn adult!

Now you’re angry, because you’re frightened and confused, and you just want out. You want to go back to a place where you know where you are, and where you know who other people are, and where you know who you are, and where you know you can trust your own mind.

Eventually, the anger burns itself out, and when you’ve calmed down you feel tired and a little weak, and you’re happy that your person – who you sometimes know is your husband and who is sometimes just the man who helps you and takes care of you – is here with you. You’re safe here in this house in which you intuitively know your way around.

This is how I imagine my mother feels every day. My mother has Alzheimer’s and she’s headed towards the late stage of this (pardon my French) motherfucker of a disease. She is still able to live at home, in the house she and my father bought over 40 years ago.

My father takes care of her and he does it well. He makes sure she still sees people, that she gets out, that she gets the diversion and stimulation she needs at a daytime activity centre that she really enjoys going to. He makes sure she eats, even though she does that less and less. That’s partly diminished hunger, and partly not always being able to swallow food after chewing, which also explains her preference for soup over all other things. And she has a sweet tooth – something she didn’t used to have – so cookies she will eat.

Having Alzheimer’s must be sheer hell, especially for a woman who has always been extremely intellectually inclined. Alzheimer’s is hell for all its sufferers because everyone needs the certainty of knowing where they are and who the people around them are. How do you know you’re home? How do you know you can trust someone if you can’t remember them, or know how you feel about them, or what your history with them is? What’s even worse is that you can’t fill in what you don’t know because your brain doesn’t let you. And all the while, you want to know, you feel like you should know all these things, these basic things.

Alzheimer’s is hard on caregivers, too, and my dad is no exception: he has to watch her decline, deal with her moods, has constant worry, is on call 24 hours a day, has an increased workload in the house, and has to guard against my mom’s impulses (which she can’t do anything about).

Caregiving is so severely underrated it is hard to even put into words, but I can say there is no one I admire more than my dad at this point.

When my mother first got diagnosed, I started reading up on Alzheimer’s like my life depended on it. I read about beta-amyloids and Aβ plaques, I read about medicines with the potential to slow its progress (there aren’t any, and apparently we’ve been barking up the wrong tree for decades), I read about the stages of Alzheimer’s, I read about the behavioral shifts and diminished capacity as the disease progresses, I read up on how I could explain it to my children. I went to information meetings to get practical advice: who to talk to about care at home, about daytime activity centers, how to approach a case manager who can help with paperwork and getting the necessary Long Term Care Act (Wet Langdurige Zorg) statements required for admission to care facilities when the time comes, how long, how very long those waiting lists are and how you should register for a care home in plenty of time.

But what I couldn’t read up on was how emotionally hard it is to watch my mother go through this illness. With everything I’ve learned about this disease, the sheer brute impact of it is something I couldn’t prepare for. There are trainings to help you understand the patient’s paranoia, there are information sessions to prepare you for the signs and symptoms sufferers can have – hallucinations, wandering, insomnia, incontinence, mood swings – but there is nothing to really, truly prepare you for how devastating it feels to watch it happen to someone you love and know that there is nothing you can do to stop or reverse it. To know that my mom isn’t my mom anymore and Alzheimer’s is stripping her away piece by piece.

The only things I can do now are love, support and help care for my mother, and love and support my father while he is by her side as she goes through this. I know that there is nothing more. But it doesn’t make it any easier.

Alzheimer resources in the Netherlands:

Alzheimer Nederland

Hersenstichting

Dementie.nl

CIZ (Wet Langdurige Zorg)

Is It Too Early for Halloween? 👻

We love Halloween! Seriously, in our house Christmas may last a little longer, but there is nothing like the feeling of an approaching Halloween for us. Once October 1st rolls around we are ready to go and we have to hold ourselves down until the 15th (completely arbitrary date, incidentally) to start decorating, which we do fairly low-key for all our love of the holiday. We’ll put up a dark wreath on the front door, witches will fly outside our front window, slightly spooky lanterns suddenly pop up in the living room and sometimes even in the bathroom (what is a bath if not a more pleasant smelling witch’s brew, really…), and our black cat is suddenly not just a pet but also a lovely real-life Halloween decoration.

Our Ichabod: suitably named for Halloween, he is our year-round interactive spooky beast.

And so, as the end of August and the start of September approach, it is time to start planning for our annual Halloween party. (This might be a good time to tell you that I’m not necessarily known for doing things at the appropriate time always, while we’re on the subject. For example: I will happily watch Christmas movies in May – seriously: not a problem for me. At all.)

The party itself is not a massive shindig, if I’m honest. It’s not a full-on come-to-our-haunted-house-in-full-fancy-dress type thing: it’s really more of a chance for the English speaking kids that our kids have befriended over the years to get together, catch up, and do some light Halloween celebrating, Anglo-American style.

I do always look forward to it very much: it’s fun to see them all every year, another year older, some of them having gone off in different directions as they’ve gone on to different schools. The Halloween party is a chance to reconnect for them and us. It’s also quite a challenge to organize so I begin thinking about it already around this time of year with anticipatory glee. Since I’m in the Halloween-planning mood already, and you can never begin too early, for this blog post I thought I’d share some ideas for family-friendly Halloween get-togethers. Here goes.

Halloween Quiz Lots of people love celebrating Halloween, but how many know its origins, or its equivalents around the world with their accompanying traditions? There are dozens of fun factoids you can pour into this quiz. All you really need to do is read up on this holiday, maybe branch out a little into witches, ghouls and superstitions, and before you know it you’ll have a ton of questions to choose from. Of course, there are also a bunch of ready made quizzes available online; I just prefer to make them myself because, well: control freak, nerd, show-off – take your pick!

If there are younger kids at the party, do take care to keep the questions and answers accessible to all – or make some questions that are better answerable for the older kids, and some for the younger ones, then team up older and younger kids to give them even chances. Surprisingly, I found that some of the “younger” questions were actually quite challenging for the older kids as well.

Halloween Mad Libs It’s mad libs, Halloween style! There are plenty of mad libs templates you can find online for this, but if you’re feeling creative, you can come up with your own stories as well.

Halloween Creations There are a bunch of games that will allow kids to be creative and really run with their own ideas. It’s great fun to see what they come up with! Here are some options:

Witch’s Brew: have everyone come up with their own witch’s brew – what’s in it, how would it taste, what would it do, what spell goes with it?

Draw What You Hear: play some Halloween songs or haunting melodies and have the kids draw something that’s described in the song or how it makes them feel. Some good songs for this are Monster Mash by Bobby “Boris” Pickett & The Crypt Keepers, and Purple People Eater by Sheb Wooley, or for more abstract pictures Erutan’s Transylvanian Lullaby, and Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre.

If I Made a Movie: Have them think up a movie title for a Halloween movie they would, and have them explain what the story would be.

Or just play a game of Once Upon a Time… Give a (spooky) story prompt, then hand the tale off to the next person to add their few lines, then to the next person, and so on…

Who Are You? For this game, you ask everyone to answer 6 questions about themselves – questions like: favorite scary monster? favorite Halloween candy? etc – then collect the sheets. Without revealing the names, you read out the answers on each sheet and see if the others can guess whose sheet it is.

Fun food You can dress up a lot of easily made drinks and snacks as something else. Pink lemonade? Unicorn wee. Snack sausages? Severed fingers (just slice a little sliver off the top and tear the other end off, then leak some tomato ketchup out of the torn end). Lasagne: entrails and sinew with a layer of grilled ectoplasm (who knew you could grill that stuff?!) Cola? Witch’s brew: just pour it over into a lightly more ornate bottle and stick on a homemade label. Be sure to list the ingredients, like snail slime, eye of newt, you know – the usual.

If you have the time and you feel so inclined, you could of course also decide on some Halloween themed snacks of your own creation, such as cupcakes decorated with flying bats made out of fondant, monster shaped cookies, or mummified sausages (sausages wrapped in ribbons of puff pastry).

Home-made Halloween and fall themed gingerbread cookies.

One time, I actually made something that looked almost too disgusting to eat: I had carved a nauseated face in a pumpkin, and then put some risotto con fungi in a heap in front of it and some in the pumpkin’s mouth. It took a while before I could get anyone in the house to eat risotto again…

Of course, standard fall treats are always fun: roasting marshmallows over a fire, making smores, serving pumpkin spiced lattes and hot cider. To make them more Halloween-y, you can do these wearing a witch’s hat or a vampire cape, and possibly playing some eerie music in the background.

Gift bags or baskets We put together a little something for the guests to take home afterwards to extend the fun a little longer. I usually make a Halloween crossword, a word search, or a word scramble to put in the bag, with a cute pen or pencil. I’ll add a small bag of candy, or even a homemade decorated cupcake, and a spooky thank you card.

One year, when I was feeling particularly inspired, I even spent quite a bit of time making stuffed Halloween monsters out of old socks and scarves. I placed them together in a big basket with a sign in front of it saying “Adopt a Monster”. (They all got adopted, even though they looked fairly awful and amateurish. I am NOT good at sewing. It’s the thought that counts, I guess.)

Honestly, I could probably keep listing and coming up with Halloween party suggestions, but seeing as how it’s still only August, I think I’ll leave it at this for now. Knowing myself, I’ll be writing a few more blog posts to do with Halloween in one way or another between now and 31 October. So if you love the season like I do, check back for more over the coming few weeks.

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Stick to It

Featured photo by Renáta-Adrienn on Unsplash

Today school starts again for my youngest, and tomorrow the oldest also begins the new academic year. The youngest does not want to go. The oldest is actually kind of looking forward to it.

When I ask the youngest why he doesn’t like school, his answers are both true and hilarious: “It takes all day!” and “You have to work all the time!” (He’s really not going to like adulting.) When I ask the oldest what they like about school, it’s mostly the artistic and creative subjects and extracurriculars, and there are many of those – it’s one of the main reasons we chose this school.

But while my children have opposite feelings about being in school, what they have in common – and in common with us as well – is that the academic year brings both order and chaos for them. So yesterday we decided to try something that is new (well, to be fair, not actually new at all – we have tried this before, but this time FEELS different and therefore new) for us as a family: we made. A. Schedule.

That’s right: the household with three ADHD people and one seriously outnumbered neuronormative guy (who doesn’t really like schedules that much either) came up with a schedule.

Freedom in discipline, we hope.

The main goals for us are to not be driven nuts by either our activities, each other, or ourselves. Of course, for us to find out whether we’ve actually made a good schedule this time we have to do the most challenging thing of all, and where all previous attempts at organizing and structuring our household have failed. We have to … wait for it … *whispers* stick to it.

As I confessed earlier, we have tried to organize and streamline things many, many times before in this house, but for some reason making the plan and then sticking to it has proved unbelievably difficult for many different reason: unexpected events, low energy levels, hyperfocus, no focus, emotional responses to not quite being on schedule resulting in veering even more off schedule (it’s an ADHD thing, I’ve been told). You know: reasons.

But we keep trying. We spent a fair amount of time for this latest attempt making sure that the goals we’ve set ourselves are actually feasible, and that there is room for the unexpected. We’ve also built in repetition, and regularity for the things we want, not just for the things we need.

I think that might be where we’ve gone wrong in the past: we placed the emphasis only on the things that were needed, not on the things that make us feel good, happy, and creative. That’s different this time around – we made this schedule to meet our own needs as well as others’.

There will still be challenges, of course, but we also have one more thing that we didn’t have before and that is a better understanding of at least three out of four brains in our family (the ADHD ones). It means we can take each other and ourselves into account more, and that in turn means both more realistic plans and more reasonable expectations.

The academic year has just started so I have no idea how well or even if this time we’ve found the winning formula, but with everything we’ve learned the past year, and a new approach based on kindness and fulfillment as well as goals and achievements, I feel like this time we have a good chance at success.

Even over scholen

Ik ga nu even vloeken in de kerk.

Het OMT kondigde gisteren aan dat de scholen voorlopig open blijven, en daar word ik heel blij van. Niet omdat de kinderen dan overdag “onder de pannen zijn”, maar omdat tijdens eerdere schoolsluitingen is gebleken hoe hevig de emotionele en psychische gevolgen zijn voor kinderen als ze niet naar school kunnen. Afstandsonderwijs trekt een enorme wissel op leerlingen en docenten, en het gevoel van sociaal isolement is voor kinderen (en natuurlijk niet alleen voor kinderen) funest.

Maar.

Aan de andere kant blijkt uit de besmettingscijfers (in de link naar beneden scrollen voor positieve testen per leeftijdsgroep) dat de meeste besmettingen plaatsvinden in de laagste leeftijdsgroepen. Door dus de scholen open te houden – de plek waar deze leeftijdsgroepen min of meer onbeperkt met elkaar in contact komen en het virus vrijelijk overdragen – gaan we deze golf nauwelijks afremmen.

En hier komt dan mijn onvertogen woord. We moeten de winst afwegen tegen het verlies: scholen niet sluiten = waarschijnlijk een onverminderd aanhouden van hoge besmettingscijfers; scholen sluiten = psychische schade bij kinderen. En dan eens kijken of er niet iets in het midden ligt.

Dus … wat als we ons eens aanpassen aan de realiteit waarin we ons nu bevinden, en eenvoudig besluiten de druk te verlagen op docenten en leerlingen? Dat kunnen we bijvoorbeeld doen door eens te bekijken welke standaarden we aanleggen voor wat betreft de prestaties en doelen in het onderwijs. Die standaarden zijn namelijk gestoeld op wat haalbaar was in een tijd waarin we ongehinderd door een pandemie konden leven en leren, en er dus hogere doelen gesteld konden worden zonder dat er mensen aan kapot gingen. De vraag die wij onszelf nu misschien wel eens kunnen stellen is: hoe realistisch is het om dezelfde prestaties te verwachten in de huidige situatie die voorheen werden verwacht in een SARS-CoV-2-vrije wereld?

Even een uitstapje: mijn moeder groeide op in de Tweede Wereld oorlog, en wij hoorden thuis regelmatig hoe het er toen aan toe ging en wat er daarna bij kwam kijken om alles weer op gang te krijgen. Het onderwijs ondervond in die tijd ook wel degelijk beperkingen, en dus deed men wat kon, maar werden er geen doelen gesteld die niet haalbaar waren. Je móest je wel aanpassen, want de realiteit was onomstotelijk wat hij was.

Natuurlijk: wij krijgen nu geen bommen op ons hoofd, of fascisten en moordenaars aan onze deur (nee, complotmarmot: mensen die je vragen om iets bij te dragen aan de publieke gezondheid zijn geen fascisten en moordenaars), maar wat we wel hebben, is een gezondheidszorg die vanwege de constante en aanzienlijke toestroom van ernstig zieke mensen door toedoen van één bepaald virus op alle fronten vastloopt. Dat betekent dus dat niet alleen COVID-patiënten te lijden zullen hebben hieronder, maar dat álle patiënten te lijden hebben onder het voortduren van deze enorme besmettingsgolf.

En dan hebben we het nog niet eens over de mensen die (blijvende) schade aan onder andere hart en longen, en long COVID overhouden aan een doorgemaakte infectie. De nasleep hiervan gaat nog een behoorlijke klap opleveren, niet alleen aan de maatschappij, maar ook aan ons heilige koetje: de economie.

Maar goed, dit toepassend op onze situatie nu: wij leven in een wereld waar dit virus aanwezig is en blijft, en waar we blijkbaar eerst nog hardere lessen moeten leren voor we begrijpen dat het ongehinderd laten losgaan van dit virus niet leidt tot oplossingen, maar alleen nog maar tot meer problemen. En we zullen realistischer moeten gaan worden over wat we van mensen vragen.

Mijn vraag specifiek voor het onderwijs is dit: hoeveel kwaad kan het als de doelen iets lager worden gesteld? Als je ruimte creëert voor docenten en leerlingen om om te gaan met de situatie waarin we ons nu bevinden zonder op schoolniveau te moeten blijven presteren alsof er niets aan de hand is? Ik ben er niet van overtuigd dat we er slechter van worden als de werkdruk over een schooljaar iets verlaagd wordt, en we iedereen wat meer tijd geven om te leren én te leven op een veilige manier. De druk die er nu ligt op iedereen in het onderwijs, aan de kant van zowel aanbod als vraag, is krankzinnig in het licht van wat er momenteel gaande is.

En waar ik dus eigenlijk voor wil pleiten is dat er een tussenvorm bestaat tussen scholen helemaal dicht en scholen volledig open. Pas de onderwijsdoelen aan naar een haalbaarder niveau, en creëer daarmee ruimte om de scholen in een tussenvorm open te houden, bijvoorbeeld met halve klassen waardoor afstand houden veel beter mogelijk is. Verhoog dan niet de hoeveelheid huiswerk en thuiswerk, maar laat in plaats daarvan gelegenheid bestaan voor leerlingen om sociaal isolement te voorkomen door iets meer vrije tijd waarin kinderen eventueel op afstand of anders buiten of in COVID-veilige ruimten op een veilige manier tijd met elkaar kunnen doorbrengen.

En voordat er nu meteen hard wordt geroepen dat die kinderen dat echt niet veilig gaan doen, moet ik opmerken dat het overgrote deel van de tieners zich wel degelijk bewust is van de gevaren en daar ook naar handelt. Natuurlijk zijn er de rellende tieners, maar die zijn veruit in de minderheid, al halen die natuurlijk het nieuws, en de kinderen die zich wel normaal gedragen en zich aan de basismaatregelen houden niet. Dat is natuurlijk niet spannend, en het adagium is “blood sells”.

Ik denk dat met een tussenoplossing dus een hoop bereikt kan worden – het terugdringen van de besmettingen én het voorkomen van ernstige psychische gevolgen voor kinderen – en dat het gezien de omstandigheden de moeite waard is om eens te kijken of er aanpassingen gemaakt kunnen worden om die doelen te bereiken en de scholen en docenten, én de gezondheidszorg, én de kinderen heel te houden.

En dan ook nog even een ander verzoek: zouden we nu eindelijk, éindelijk eens kunnen investeren in goede ventilatie in scholen? Daar hebben we niet alleen nu wat aan, maar ook in toekomstige epidemieën van door de lucht verspreide ziekten.

Het is maar een idee.

Random Thoughts on a Monday Morning

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been developing some pretty unhealthy holding patterns since this pandemic started, despite my best intentions. At the start of the first lockdown, the husband and I thought we’d try to set up some good habits, like lunchtime walks, time spent with the whole family at the end of the afternoon – you know, stuff like that. It lasted for all of two weeks, and even then only off and on, depending on the demands of his job and our children.

It’s not only that it’s too easy for these resolutions to make way to daily demands, though. It’s also that the increase in mental load has put extra pressure on things: what is going on with this virus, how do I manage the risk assessment, how do I keep everyone safe yet not turn us all into peculiar hermits?

I notice a pattern in that the resolutions I’ve tossed out the window the most easily have been the ones to do with self care. There is so much other care that seems to take priority that the time left for self care became more about just sitting down and doing something mindless than, say, getting some exercise, meditating, even studying (which is something that I actually really enjoy – don’t @ me).

But now that schools have started again here (I spent the better part of an hour lying awake last night wondering how long before COVID clusters will shut down our schools again, what with inadequate measures and poor ventilation in most school buildings; then I finally fell asleep and dreamed about COVID clusters in schools, so yeah, that was a good night’s rest 🙄), I have a better chance of establishing a more healthy routine again for myself, and beginning to restore my energy levels. Because I finally have some time again.

With that intention, I practiced yoga again this morning for the first time in a long, LONG time, and it felt great! There I was, on my mat, just doing what I had been doing for years on end and somehow had suddenly stopped doing – injuries, lack of energy, lack of time, general lacklusterness – and I enjoyed it so much!

I selected a Yoga with Adriene video – if you want a good start to your day, find yourself a YwA video and go for it, trust me on this! – and as I was stretching, relaxing, focusing and applying myself to alignment and awareness, I noticed some things (in no particular order):

  • I am pretty flexible still for not having done yoga for such a long time.
  • My thighs aren’t nearly as fat as I imagine (I guess Baz Luhrmann was right).
  • I don’t need to always be perfect at everything all the time.
  • I really, really want to learn more about yoga; I’ve been studying the movements and postures for years and I’m still only scratching the surface. Having been handicapped for a while with an immobile hand and wrist that wouldn’t support my weight I had already been forced to examine the parts of yoga that were not purely about pose achievement, and now I want to dive back into it.
  • I can’t control everything.
  • My grippy mat seems less grippy somehow.
(This is not my grippy mat.)

And so here are my new resolutions – may they last: I will focus on being kinder to myself; learning more about yoga; learning to accept what I can’t change, change what I can’t accept, and trying to know the difference; and saving up to buy a new grippy mat.

So there it is: random thoughts on a Monday morning.

What Is Going On With Me??

Just a quick warning: this (very long) post is going to be about a topic that is not necessarily for everyone: (peri)menopause. So if you are not interested in reading about that, this post is not for you. Otherwise, let’s move on without further ado.

I am now of a certain age and over the past year and a half, maybe two years, I’ve begun to notice certain changes in myself. At first, I just figured maybe it was stress, or those odd, unexplained things that sometimes ail you and then disappear as suddenly as they appear. As for my thoughts occasionally being a bag of ferrets – well, that’s not entirely new to me though the degree to which was definitely a few levels beyond what I was used to.

The first hint I had, though, of something feeling truly different was when I had my first, honest to god, uncontrollable mood swing. I was suddenly, inexplicably, and without warning pissed off at everyone and everything and for absolutely no good reason whatsoever. And then as suddenly as the Grump-from-Hell showed up, she was gone again. For me, that was weird, because I don’t get mood swings; I didn’t get them when I was pregnant, I’ve never had them when I had my periods. But my mood this time was literally beyond my control: it was like I had nothing to say about these feelings, no way to calm down, just … nothing! I felt like one of those ants that gets invaded by a parasite and then just turn into zombies, except I was an angry zombie and I had no spores growing out of my dead head (thank goodness).

Anyway, that’s when I started to take all those changes a little more seriously. What follows is an enumeration of some of the things I’ve been going through. The reason I’m writing this post is because this is a pretty turbulent time for me and I imagine I’m not the only one who feels this way. At times, when another symptom hits or the same symptom hits again I become downright suspicious of my body: “What is this pain/discomfort/weirdness? I’ve never had/felt this before. Is this normal?? Is my body trying to kill me?”

As always: this post only outlines my personal experiences. Every menopause is different, though there are common signs and symptoms. If you are concerned, contact your doctor. Some healthcare systems actually have doctors specializing in menopause.

Enough introduction. Here we go.

Hot Flashes

I thought I’d start with a very common symptom: hot flashes. My core temperature is pretty low, and I am more often cold than warm. And my first hot flash felt bizarre. Literally from one minute to the next I felt flushed, with hot skin, began sweating, and it was like nothing I’d felt before. It didn’t last long, though it felt plenty long to me. I vividly remember trying to cool myself down by standing in front of the freezer with the door open. More about hot flashes (also night sweats) here.

Stiff Joints

The next thing I started noticing is that, even though I am still pretty flexible – probably thanks to yoga – I have these periods of stiffness in the joints. From one day to the next I will suddenly have inflexible hips, very little neck mobility, or stiff shoulders. This stiffness can last anywhere from days to weeks, and it makes every yoga session an exciting new adventure (that was sarcasm). Here is some more information about age and menopause related joint pain.

Weird and Unexplained Aches and Pains

I’ve noticed some weird aches and pains not related to joints as well. A sudden cramp here, a sudden stab of pain there. Nothing worrying, but rather annoying. If you are experiencing unexplained aches and pains and you are worried, contact your doctor. Don’t hesitate, just call. That’s what they’re there for.

Weight Gain

This is a funny one. Not funny-ha-ha, funny-weird.

All of my life, any weight gained always went straight to my hips. I’m not kidding: nothing ever, ever went to my stomach. Then one morning all of a sudden there it was: a tummy! No matter how many sit-ups or Russian twists or airplanes I do, that fat ain’t goin’ nowhere!

I’m not complaining, it’s just not anything I’ve ever had any experience with. I’ve literally never had to worry about my tummy; it was always just flat. Now, my butt, that’s a whole different story…

The abdominal weight gain is apparently a function of your body looking to replace the estrogen whose levels are dropping during menopause, and the fat provides that. This article explains how that works, exactly. For me, the only upside I can see is that it means I need to update my wardrobe. Mostly, though, I have been having to get used to a different body with a different shape. It’s weird for me and it’s not easy, not least because my moods are also affected during this time and so feeling anxious about the way I look comes a lot more easily. (More about this later.)

Painful Breasts

Now this is the one symptom that is really tripping me up. Until a few years ago, my breasts were just my breasts: part of my body, part of my shape. I have had some issues with them (cysts) but on the whole they were just part of me and I didn’t worry about them. That’s changed.

Sometimes I have entire weeks when my breasts just hurt, sometimes one and sometimes both. Like a lot of women, I regularly self-examine (here’s how to do that and what to look and feel for) and a while back I felt a lump. I called the women’s breast cancer department in my hospital directly (this hospital throws up no barriers for women who are concerned about possible breast cancer – if you feel something, they will schedule you in for an exam as soon as possible) and had a full exam, including a mammogram and an ultrasound, and was then seen by a doctor who also performed a hands-on exam. I was cleared, but it turned out I did have another one of those cysts I mentioned earlier.

Moral of the story: I was lucky and fine, and cysts are sometimes painful, and any lump you feel in there is likely to cause you some worry. And I won’t lie: there are times when I seriously contemplate whether one (or both) of my breasts is going to make me sick or, even worse, kill me. It’s not a fun way to feel about a part of your body.

As my doctor told me during my follow-up appointment: breasts react immediately to hormonal changes, and sometimes that can feel pretty damn worrying. Do keep in mind in all of this that the same hormonal changes that your breasts are responding to can also be responsible for enhancing those worries, sometimes creating some real emotional turmoil. Speaking of…

Worries and Feelings

The worrying. Ugh. And the feels. Sometimes all the feels at once! Hormonal shifts during menopause often result in mood swings but also mood disorders and based on my own experience this is not something to take lightly. All this worrying and the sheer force of the emotions that well up sometimes out of nowhere is definitely not something I think I could have prepared for. Like undoubtedly everyone else I have had times where I worried about things and sometimes perhaps excessively, but this is of a whole different level.

For me, regular exercise and meditation level me out a little bit, but there are also times I decide to just ride the wave, put on a sad movie and just let it all out, or do a happy dance when the hormones decide it’s time to feel giddy. Mostly, though, not being on an even keel half the time is exhausting and because I would like to be able to function as a not-insane adult there are times when I use up a lot of energy managing my moods.

Brain Fog

Here’s another one I wasn’t ready for: my brain slowing down or just downright taking a mini break in the middle of my day. Reading a paragraph and promptly forgetting what I just read. Or reading a paragraph but having the information bounce off my brain as though it was shielded against content somehow. Or remembering there’s something I have to do and then immediately forgetting to do that thing. Six times a day. That same thing. Or going into another room to get something and forgetting what I was going to get as soon as I am through the door. Or putting my phone down somewhere and spending the next hour looking for it. Or starting a sentence and then not –

The official term for this type of “brain fog” is menopause-related cognitive impairment, and this too shall pass, but while it is there it can be seriously disruptive, and not a little scary. As I have a family member with Alzheimer’s, the specter of dementia looms large and with the hormone-induced increase in worrying, this, again, is not exactly a fun symptom to have.

Migraines

Yay. Migraines. Such fun. I am used to migraines, as I’ve been getting them since I was 19. The thing is, I didn’t get them very often. Now, the intensity of the migraine itself is less (though there’s still no painkiller that will even make a dent in the pain), but I get them more often, and they bring an increase in brain fog with them. So I am pretty much functionally impaired at least one day a month these days.

Difficult and Irregular Periods

Even though this is what menopause is all about – the end of periods – I’ve saved this one for last, because it sort of ties all the symptoms I have discussed so far together. As I recently discovered when I talked to a friend about this, I’ve been pretty lucky with my periods for most of my life; they’ve always been extremely regular and they have barely bothered me at all. Sure, there was blood, sometimes a lot of it, but hardly any cramps, no mood swings, no fatigue, no headaches, no bloatedness, nothing! That began to change a little under 2 years ago. First with increased moodiness and fatigue, and cramps, then migraines and pelvic pain were added, and now I regularly have the full spectrum: bloated, hot flashes, migraines, fatigue, mood swings, diarrhea, cramps, pelvic pain. Quite the smorgasbord, no?

And on top of all that, my periods are becoming more unpredictable: sometimes a little ahead of or behind schedule, rarely just weeks early or late, sometimes light, sometimes heavy … it’s anyone’s guess, really.

Changes in periods can feel very concerning. Like my breasts, I feel like my uterus could just as easily pull a fast one on me and develop abnormal cells, with symptoms that can also be attributed to (peri)menopause. Would I notice if something was wrong? (Once more, I would like to refer to the paragraph dealing with hormones turning your usually rational brain into a bag of ferrets.) Again, if you’re worried, contact your doctor.

So, that’s it: a run-down of my experience with the run-up to menopause. It’s a rollercoaster, and there are as many different experiences of menopause as there are women. And while it can be a time of physical and emotional turmoil, it is also a natural process and it will end at some point. Having said that, please remember that just because menopause is a natural process that doesn’t mean you have to suffer with it. There are treatments to lessen the impact of these hormonal, physical and emotional changes and asking for them is nothing to feel bad about.

As premenopausal, perimenopausal, menopausal and post-menopausal symptoms are being taken more seriously and are studied and researched, and as this part of women’s lives is finally becoming less hidden, there are things to take comfort in. First , we know a lot more now about what happens to women’s bodies in this phase of our lives. Second, there are treatments that can help mitigate some of the disruption caused by menopause and the time leading up to and away from it. And finally, we can talk about this, about how we feel physically and emotionally, and hopefully knowing each other’s stories will help us feel more supported and less overwhelmed during such a turbulent time in our lives.

Barrage – A Rant

Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com

This morning my daughter woke me up at 5:45 AM. She is 13 years old and she couldn’t sleep. She had been watching a YouTube video which was immediately followed up with a video of a young girl weighing herself, seeing the number on the scales and entertaining suicidal thoughts. It made her sad, and worried, and she had been caught off guard by this. It’s something she feels she should maybe know about, but that I agree should not have been dumped on her like this.

My daughter and her peers experience this kind of onslaught all the time. Social media are not safe regardless of the safeguard theater companies put on, and while our daughter fortunately feels and knows she can talk to us about her worries, many teenagers don’t have an adult to confide in and are thus left to worry with no perspective, context or explanation. Add to that that there is often a sense of guilt over having watched something that was maybe inappropriate and the fear of hearing that this load they now carry was of their own making and you have the makings of a cesspool that can really mess a kid up.

For me, I found myself having to explain – barely awake enough to remember that words exist – that anorexia exists and it is awful, and also it is about so much more than weight, or even body dysphoria, but that is a conversation for another time if/when she feels she can handle hearing about it. Try to go back to sleep now, if you can.

What follows now is a rant, plain and simple. I have no solutions, just observations. And feelings about those observations, I guess. Off we go then.

There‘s a whole mass of people out there without any sense of personal responsibility. They live in a selective vacuum, screaming into the wind for no other reason than to validate their own ego, or protect their own fragile comfort zone. They don’t care who gets hurt in the process. They loudly and sometimes violently proclaim their often uninformed and shortsighted opinions to be better than facts because their reality is the only one that matters and anyone unwilling to adopt it is a fool, a sheep, gullible, or should go off and die. I’m not even exaggerating here.

Those people claim that this is all about freedom: freedom to express whatever you want, freedom to be whoever you choose to be. All good things, to be sure, except for the part where they also, apparently, have the freedom to destroy whatever or whoever gets in their way in the process. Freedom from and without consequence. It’s ironic that inevitably the people wreaking this havoc are the same people whose every argument is shrouded in “but think of the children”.

Well, those sounds and sights reach our children and it hurts them, damages them, causes them untold anxiety and worry as it teaches them that the world they live in has nothing in common with the values they are told matter. You know, the values that are promoted by the Disney Channel and teenage popcorn movies. They’re values I agree with: fairness, kindness, honesty. But what those stories mostly fail to communicate is the sheer strength needed to uphold those values in ourselves by ourselves as every aspect of the world today in fact pushes the opposite. And it’s a strength that teenagers need to acquire, but often don’t already possess. Adults often don’t either, because it’s hard.

We live in a world that rates money over humanity, power over fairness, and loud, cruel ignorance over kindness. We try to teach our children how to be a good person, but then we make the mistake of telling them that being a good person should be its own reward, and while that is true it’s also not true, in the same way that a job well done is its own reward, but also a job well done should enable you to put food on the table and a roof over your head at the very least.

Inherent morality needs a feedback loop. And when the world floats on only money, when the Amazons and Googles and Facebooks of the world are rewarded with staggering profits and ridiculous tax avoidance for employing shockingly bad working conditions and turning their users into tradable datasets, rather than protecting or at least respecting the human rights and spirit of its products users and workers, what the hell are we even doing anymore?

We live in a world that has people intelligent enough to create technology that has far-reaching influence over society, that can affect political realities, even overthrow governments and enable corrupt leaders to use these tools to continue their oppressive and destructive rule. A world in which we are apparently smart enough to develop these technologies that could do so much good, but no one is smart enough to deploy or use these tools responsibly and constructively. Or perhaps more accurately: a world where no one cares to do so.

What does this teach our kids? That exploitation is rewarded, and fairness is a losing proposition. That ruthlessness is a virtue, and kindness is a weakness. Just in case it needs to be said: those are the wrong lessons.

Unsolicited information is inflicted on us without warning all the time. For children who are sensitive to what happens in the world, children who care and who are hurt by the pain of others, that can be a nightmare, especially when they are unprepared for it. And who decides which information gets to them? It’s not the parents, who can’t be constant gatekeepers, though most of us really try. At most, we have a semblance of control. We are up against algorithms that have been created with the sole purpose of monetizing us, children included. Adults barely stand a chance against all this, what chance do kids have?

Young Instagram users who want to look at pictures of cute cats and fairytale settings, but in between that have to scroll past “beauty” ads designed to make them feel self-conscious for no good reason, because there is a whole industry looking to monetize that newly instilled insecurity based on nothing real. Yes, the body positivity movement is gaining momentum, but we are so far from where we need to be still. Young YouTube users who want to watch a Just Dance video or see a movie clip and are then suddenly interrupted by a video that packs a psychological punch that not only catches them unawares but also unprepared.

Meanwhile, I have a 13-year old who at the moment feels like she doesn’t even know where to start working through her feelings as she sees all these things that she finds unfair, truly sad, and downright scary. These things wake her up at 5 AM. These things keep her awake when she tries to sleep at night. And she’s right, there’s so much wrong with the world at the moment. And at least some of it is our fault. We are failing our kids at least as much as we have failed ourselves. I’m not saying they need to be protected from everything. At some point, they need to face the realities of the world, but not all at once, and they certainly do not need to be ambushed by it.

We, too, are overpowered, outmanned, outgunned. Money-making algorithms. People are products. And in the midst of all this, we see blissfully unbothered ruthlessness as Facebook floats the idea of Instagram for kids… As the young folks say: I can’t even with these people.

Languishing Just a Little Less

It’s been a few weeks since I wrote my last blog post. It’s not that nothing has been going on, or that I haven’t had experiences or opinions on things or anything like that, I just haven’t been able to muster up much energy. I’ve been suffering from “meh”: every day has been more or less the same, except that I haven’t been able to establish much structure or routine to my days. I’ve just been doing the same things every day, sometimes in a different order, and at a different pace, and sometimes, when my energy has been really low, I haven’t been doing them at all.

For the past few weeks – well, actually for quite some time before that as well – I’ve been feeling pretty low energy. To be fair, at least recently part of that is down to interrupted nights where one of my children or my snoring husband or my cat wakes me up just that hour too early and it drains half my battery before I even start on my day. Thank god for coffee… (though, I know, coffee doesn’t actually provide the pick-me-up we are led to believe: the caffeine in coffee doesn’t wake you up, but it does counter adenosine, which is the thing that makes you sleepy.)

But it’s more than just not getting enough sleep. It’s that each day consists of lists and lists of chores which need to get done preferably by the end of the day and which then will need to be repeated a few days later because chores never bleeping end, do they?! And while the satisfaction I used to get from a job well done is still there its impact lasts ever shorter. The energy I manage to bring to the things I do is also less. And there is not much to change things up at the moment, so perhaps monotony is a factor.

And yet I wonder about that because I also get to spend my days with the people I like best in the world, and we do fun things together like play games, watch movies, cook and bake, and that makes me happy. And of course no two days are the same, though lately they are very similar.

I think that the monotony of activity is not the only thing that is at play, though. It’s also the monotony of location. Like pretty much everyone, the pandemic has me being mostly at home, inside my house, which is a very comfortable place with a lovely garden to enjoy when the weather doesn’t suck – which isn’t often lately. This locational monotony is probably even worse for my husband, who has been truly housebound for the past year, and marginally less so for my son, who has been mostly housebound for the past year. I, at least, get out to shop for groceries (same shops, same morning every week, but with the added joy of seeing my friend with whom I can catch up), and my daughter goes to school part time, so she, too, sees more of the world that way.

But whatever the individual elements are of my current state of mind, I have learned that there is a word for it: languishing. I am languishing. My whole family is languishing. It’s a term that I read about recently in an excellent article by Adam Grant, and it is oddly liberating to know what this funk that I am in is called, not to mention that it is an actual thing! I was reminded of this article again yesterday as I listened to the episode of The Armchair Expert that had Prince Harry talking about mental health (an excellent episode, by the way, which I highly recommend listening to).

Even the cat is languishing

I listened to this podcast, incidentally, while folding the laundry. The little things that help us through the mind-numbing parts of our day, eh? Podcasts have saved my life, I tell you!

Now that I know what the problem is, though, how do I fix it? The languishing itself won’t be fixed, I’m afraid, until there is some freedom to move again without a significant risk to our personal health. In terms of how I experience my day-to-day, though, I did a little introspection and I found that one thing that’s going on is that I actually experience a ton of pressure from the ever-present list of chores. So here, I realized, was something I could do!

I have now begun to take a different approach to my chores: I will still do the things that need doing, but I’m putting less pressure on myself to do them. No more laundry list of things that need to be done by the end of business today, just a list of things that need doing, in order of priority, and I’ll do them but when I’m up to it. I’m not naturally one for sitting still anyway, and I like things at least a little tidy so I know I will get the chores done. I’ve just removed the stress factor of “must ALL be finished by 4 PM” and allowed myself some freedom to take the time to do things that inspire or relax me and I alternate that with the chores, and what doesn’t get done today will get done tomorrow. I don’t necessarily take longer breaks, it’s just that when I’m doing something I enjoy I am actually enjoying it because I’ve given myself permission to do so, and it’s making such a difference!

[I feel like at this point I should acknowledge my privilege in that I actually can do this, where many people cannot, due to any number of factors. This blog post is purely about what I am able to do for myself to combat the languishing a little. In other words: you could see if you think this is an approach worth trying if you have the space, time and situation for it.]

Oddly, I feel like I’m getting pretty much the same amount of work done. My personal time and my work time are about evenly balanced, but the real difference is that when I am sitting down and doing something I like doing, I can truly focus on it, rather than feel like I should really be doing something else. It improves the quality of my personal time, and gives me more energy for the work that needs doing. But most importantly, I feel less like every day is Groundhog Day.

And while that hasn’t defeated the languishing, it is making me feel just that little bit better.